Is Mills & Boon feminist literature, misogynist trash or neither?

A debate is raging over whether Mills & Boon novels can be considered feminist literature. Writing Romance course director and Mills & Boon author Heidi Rice explains her viewpoint.

Heidi Rice
Heidi Rice

A heated debate is raging, triggered by an article in the Guardian by Sheffield University professor Val Derbyshire who is leading two events at the university’s Festival of the Mind, espousing her theory that Mills & Boon books are feminist literature.

Which, on the surface, seems like an outlandish claim, because the perceived wisdom goes something like this: Mills & Boon? Feminist Literature?

Aren’t they bodice rippers/full of jerk-like heroes/mealy mouthed heroines/purple prose/forced seduction (otherwise known as rape)?

And how can they possibly have any literary weight anyway if they’re written by computers? To a formula? Or by men writing under pseudonyms who are trying to earn a few bob by writing trash?

Those of us who love reading M&B books can easily hit back at a lot of those commonly held myths. But I’ve done that already, and I’m not here to do it again, because it’s boring.

But after reading Derbyshire’s argument and Julie Bindel’s strident rebuttal I wanted to stick my oar into this particular debate because I’ve actually written a few M&B books in my time as a romance novelist.

In that time, no one has ever accused me of being mealy-mouthed (unlike all my M&B heroines, obviously).

Now, to be fair, I haven’t actually heard Derbyshire’s lecture.

However, from the selective quotes carried in the Guardian article about her — during what was clearly a slow news week — it seems her thesis makes a couple of key assertions based on her extensive reading of M&B books over the years.

Namely, that they deal with difficult subjects (such as rape) in a female-centric and often empowering way and that they are predominately written by women for women.

Excellent, we’re off to a good start. She actually reads M&B books. And the Guardian reported on that original story with remarkable magnanimity.

As with any other work of fiction, Mills & Boon authors bring their own life experiences, their own sensibilities and their own unique voice to the stories they write.

– Heidi Rice

Over to vocal M&B hater, Julie Bindel, to run down Derbyshire’s theory and M&B books as trash that supports the patriarchy and condones rape – based on her possibly not-quite-as-wide-reading of the texts involved.

She thoughtfully backed up her argument with two out-of-context lines quoted from a sex scene in a 2010 book where the heroine’s internal thought tells us she’s a virgin and finding her first sexual encounter with the hero somewhat uncomfortable.

Plus, she wants to tell him to stop but she doesn’t because…um, something to do with not giving him the power in their relationship.

I myself did not read that passage as rape. I also don’t know a single M&B author/or editor who would want to write or publish a scene in which the hero is forcing the heroine to have sex while knowing she does not consent.

Bindel would disagree.

But here’s the thing, as an author, I’d have to say I’m perplexed by both the It’s Feminist-It’s Not Feminist arguments for two reasons:

Firstly, as with any other work of fiction, Mills & Boon authors bring their own life experiences, their own sensibilities and their own unique voice to the stories they write.

So when Val Derbyshire says the stories they write are all feminist or Julie Bindel says they’re all not feminist, they are both falling into a common misconception.

Both are implying that — unlike any other publisher in the market today — that every book Mills & Boon publish can be lumped together and judged accordingly.

Now, what if we put that little nugget aside and agreed that M&B series books and, specifically, their best-selling line Modern (or Harlequin Presents in the US) which I believe are the books most people are thinking of when they refer to an M&B book?

At least, certainly the ones always pictured in these articles (sorry to all those authors that write for M&B’s many other lines, you don’t exist) do have certain key similarities because of M&B’s guidelines for each of their series lines.

In the case of Modern: the heroes are alpha, they’re irresistibly sexy, devastatingly handsome, the settings are glamorous, glitzy, jet-setting and ludicrously aspirational.

In short, these books promise to deliver to their readers high-octane escapist romantic fantasy in a handy page-turning chunk.

Rather inconveniently, though, even Modern books have individual authors with individual voices who create their own individual characters and conflicts for each story.

Or we’d all be writing the same book. And it would be a whole lot easier! (sorry, that computer programme thingy is a myth too).

Now, maybe people who don’t want to read books that hold a guaranteed promise within the narrative (which is what those M&B guidelines are there to deliver) or desire the comfort of a guaranteed positive outcome (which is the promise of a romance novel in general) think these books are all the same.

But people who do read romance, know and see the difference very clearly. It’s all in the eye of the beholder peeps….

But here’s the other thing that perplexes me about the Is It Or Is It Not Feminist argument. I think it completely fails to understand the creative process of writing.

– Heidi Rice

But here’s the other thing that perplexes me about the Is It Or Is It Not Feminist argument. I think it completely fails to understand the creative process of writing. I’m well aware a lot of people think there is nothing remotely creative or challenging about writing an M&B novel.

But as someone who has actually done it a few times and spent sleepless nights agonising about her hero’s conflict or re-writing an opening scene 50 times to get it right, just bear with me here….

I consider myself a feminist and not one of those trashy “fun feminists” either (just ask my sons, who have to handle my impassioned rants about everything from women’s reproductive rights to The Bechtel Test on a regular basis).

Even so, I’m sure Julie would make mincemeat of some of my books. A good example would be Pleasure, Pregnancy and a Proposition (ignore the daft title, it’s what’s called a marketing tool).

This was my fourth book for M&B and opens with the hero striding into the heroine’s office in Camden and virtually kidnapping her in front of all her workmates so he can force her to take a pregnancy test.

I’m holding up my hand here to say that my hero Luke’s behaviour in that opening scene is not exactly enlightened. I might even be forced to admit my hero behaves like a prize jerk (even if he’s an extremely hot prize jerk).

And my heroine Louisa is justifiably furious. And frankly, she’s not particularly mollified when she discovers to her horror that she actually is pregnant and this prize jerk is the father!

But before we get all up ourselves freaking out about how patriarchal and prize jerky my hero is in that scene, let me explain how I came up with that opening sequence.

It all started when I was looking with my two sons at their ultrasound pictures and telling them what an incredibly emotional moment it had been for me and their dad when those pictures were taken.

And an intriguing question popped into my head. What would happen if you were sharing that intensely emotional ultrasound moment with a guy you couldn’t stand?

Now obviously, I knew that guy was going to be the hero, and these two were going to end up together despite their differences in that scene because I write romance novels and romance novels are about relationships with a positive outcome.

And because I like to write hot romance novels, I also knew that while these two did not like each other they would still be extremely sexually attracted to one another. But everything else was in the balance.

How could these two ever work out their differences, make this relationship work after a start like that? And as a writer all I could think was… I love it. The harder their journey the more exciting, challenging, emotionally intense it will be for me and my readers.

Mills & Boon books, like all romance novels (even the tiny percentage written by men!) and any other type of fiction, are written by authors who have a creative vision.

– Heidi Rice

Of course, once I’d figured out that initial opening sequence of events, I had loads of questions to answer.

Why was the heroine clueless about her own pregnancy? And why was the hero so determined to find out if she was or was not pregnant? Why had he behaved like a domineering jerk? Did he have strong enough motivations for doing what he did?

Did those motivations ultimately excuse his behaviour? I thought so.

Others didn’t….but it was still a great start to a romance novel (if I say so myself). Yes, some readers might say that opening is contrived, over the top, melodramatic. Those readers won’t read on and that’s their choice.

Those readers also probably don’t read Mills & Boon Modern books.

But the readers who find that conflict delicious, compelling, exciting; those readers who want to know what’s going to happen to these two people and the tiny life that now connects them, will read on.

At least, hopefully they will — because I’ve set those characters up well enough to make their flaws and weaknesses as compelling as their strengths.

What I was not thinking throughout that whole creative process was: is this feminist, or is it reinforcing the patriarchy?

Rather, when I was writing the rest of the book, I was trying to figure out how these two were going to deal with all the emotional baggage I’d dumped on them, while still having lots of hot sexy times in a 50k word count.

I got some pretty furious reviews on Goodreads for that book, from women who were annoyed about the hero’s behaviour, and the heroine’s. Fair enough. Obviously for them I had not done my job well enough.

But that’s their opinion.

Other readers loved it. But do I think those differing opinions were because those readers were or were not feminists? Actually no, I think primarily it was because they either were or were not convinced by my characters’ behaviour.

Should Mills & Boon authors — or indeed any author at all – have to make their characters do one thing or another based on a set of principles, or beliefs, even if they are their own principles and beliefs?

Or indeed can they? Doesn’t that ultimately fly in the face of an author’s creativity, their ability to create their own unique multi-layered characters within a fictional universe?

And why should female writers, or romance writers, or indeed Mills & Boon authors be held to a different standard than everyone else? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the books aren’t feminist, or that they are.

Or even that I don’t strive to push what I consider to be my own personal feminist agenda in my own books. I would cheer Maya Angelou when she said: ‘I’m a feminist. I’ve been a woman for a long time now, I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.’

But my point is that Mills & Boon books, like all romance novels (even the tiny percentage written by men!) and any other type of fiction, are written by authors who have a creative vision.

And whether you consider their work to have value or not, Mills & Boon authors like all other authors, have one primary purpose when they write a story – not to make it feminist or non-feminist — but to create something they themselves would want to read.

Of course, the hope is that a few other people will want to read it too – and in my case, those people may be Val Derbyshire and probably won’t be Julie Bindel (unless she’s writing an article about what patriarchal tripe I write).

But as Ian McEwan put it in the Guardian magazine (oh, the irony!): ‘I don’t care about sales. The dopamine moment is finishing the novels.’

To be fair, Mills & Boon authors generally write a lot of novels, so you could totally accuse us of being dopamine junkies. But don’t get us started on whether or not our books are feminist. Or you’re liable to get yourself a 2,000+ word blog on the subject.

Editor’s note: this is a shortened version of Heidi Rice’s blog post – read the full version

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Meet your Course Director

Heidi Rice

Heidi Rice

Heidi Rice is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic novels, novellas and short stories.

She has sold over million copies of her books worldwide, had her stories translated into languages and has finaled in the Romance Writers of America’s RITA awards which recognise excellence in romance writing. 

Before becoming a published romance author, Heidi worked for twenty years as a film journalist for, among others, Radio Times, What’s on TV and the Daily Mail.

She has run numerous library workshops on writing romantic fiction including featuring in Islington Council’s Word Festival in 2013 and has previously worked as a reader for the Romantic Novelists Association’s New Writers Scheme.

 

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